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Why Collective Bargaining Is a Fundamental Human Right

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The ability for ordinary working people to organize and collectively bargain over their wages and working conditions is a fundamental human right. It is a right just as critical to a democratic society as the right to free speech and the right to vote.

Over the last 30 years many in corporate America and the big Wall Street banks have conducted a sustained attack on that human right. Unionization dropped from 20.1 percent of the workforce in 1983 to 11. 3 percent in 2013 -- and the results are there for everyone to see.

During that period productivity and Gross Domestic Product per capita both increased by roughly 80 percent in America. But the wages of ordinary Americans have remained stagnant. Virtually all of the fruits of that increased productivity have gone to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans.

No wonder the gang on Wall Street opposes unions.

That fact that all of the productivity gains went to the top 1 percent is not the result of an immutable law of nature. When unions represented a quarter of the private sector workforce, a larger and larger percentage of the total economic pie flowed into the pockets of ordinary Americans -- and the result was the world's most vibrant middle class.

The simple fact is that absent government regulation and collective bargaining agreements, the market by itself does not assure that everyone shares in the fruits of society's increased economic productivity. In fact, we know that just the opposite is true.

This is not surprising. The power relationship between the owners of capital and millions of individual employees is completely imbalanced in favor of big corporations and banks.

Everyone with a modicum of employment experience knows that most ordinary employees cannot individually "bargain" over their wages. In order to have a negotiation between two equal partners, employees must organize unions and bargain collectively. Otherwise the wages of everyday Americans will continue to stagnate, and the wealth of the 1 percent will continue to explode.

The share of income of the top one-thousandth of the population increased from 2 percent to nearly 10 percent in the last several decades. The portion of income received by the top 10 percent went from 33 percent in 1970 to 47 percent in 2010. These are the highest levels of income inequality since the '20s.

And the concentration of wealth in the hands of the very rich is higher today than at any time since before the Great Depression. The top 10 percent now owns over 70 percent of all wealth. The top 1 percent owns almost 35 percent of all wealth -- while the bottom 50 percent owns 2 percent.

Left to itself, the laissez faire market place would naturally lead to even more concentration of income and wealth in the hands of the very rich. And that would mean that the economy as a whole would almost certainly stagnate and crash once again.

That's because it is economic common sense that if ordinary workers produce more and more products and services per hour, but their wages don't go up in proportion to their increased productivity -- there will be more and more products and services, but no customers with the money in their pockets to buy all of those new products and services.

That's a simple truism that Henry Ford understood when he vowed to pay his workers enough so they could afford to buy the cars they produced.

Democratic societies cannot long endure this increasing inequality. And there are only two effective treatments for the cancer of increasing inequality:

  • Government action -- increases in the minimum wage and a return to fair tax rates on the wealthy -- and especially on the accumulation of capital;
  • A massive increase in the percentage of the labor force that exercises its right to collectively bargain its wages.

Last week, the United States Supreme Court made a decision actually aimed at weakening the human right to collectively bargain wages and working conditions. Their decision held that home care workers -- who were miserably exploited before they joined a union just 10 years ago -- could not be "forced" to pay a "fair share" contribution to support the collective bargaining that had resulted in doubling of their pay.

In fact, of course, this decision had nothing whatsoever to do with the freedom of the home care workers to opt out of paying union dues. It had everything to do with trying to weaken public sector unions that are the only portion of the labor movement that has materially grown (to represent 35 percent of the public sector work force) over the last 30 years.

It is completely fair that workers who choose a union to represent them with a democratic vote should also be obligated to pay for the cost of negotiating and administering a labor contract. The same, after all, is true of ordinary citizens who democratically elect a city government. Even if you voted against the Mayor and city council, you still have to pay taxes to the city. Otherwise lots of people would simply enjoy the benefits of receiving the public goods produced by city government -- or a union contract -- without paying their share of the costs.

This Supreme Court case was brought by the National "Right to Work" Committee -- whose goal is a "union-free environment." Their contributors include some of the wealthiest people in America who want to continue to be able to siphon off all of the increases in productivity in our economy without being required to share anything with ordinary Americans or pay a living wage. They understand that their best bet to achieve that goal is to limit the right to collective bargaining. Luckily ordinary Americans are waking up to their game.

Last year the number of private sector workers in unions rose by 281,000 over the year previous. Unfortunately, this increase was partially offset by a reduction of 118,000 public sector workers in unions. The public sector decline resulted from political actions by Republican State Legislators and Governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin -- which helps explain why the National Right to Work Committee is so keen on weakening public sector unions.

But public sector unions are organizing to push back with aggressive new organizing drives to enlist more rank and file workers. And in the private sector we've seen massive new organizing campaigns -- especially in the service sector that is the fastest growing component of the economy. For example, fast food workers have organized the "fight for $15" per hour and a union.

And there is now a robust national campaign to raise the minimum wage that is supported by almost 70 percent of Americans.

Increasingly, ordinary Americans understand who is on their side -- and who is not.

Luckily for American working people, the Supreme Court's decision will likely only strengthen the resolve of an increasingly creative labor movement to assert the right to collective bargaining -- and to demand that ordinary people once again begin receiving a fair share of the fruits of America's growing productivity.

According to Bloomberg News, the nation's 100 top paid CEO's make from 299 to 1,795 times as much as their average employees. One of them actually makes $65,000 per hour. These numbers have skyrocketed over the last 30 years.

Bruce Rauner, who is running for Governor in Illinois, proudly describes himself as being part of the .01 percent. He made $25,000 per hour in 2012 -- and then had the audacity to propose that the Illinois minimum wage of $8.25 be reduced to the current national minimum wage of $7.25. So much for a sense of perspective from the CEO class.

Some pundits and columnists have bought the notion that is propagated by these CEO's that labor unions are "so 20th century." Oh, they say, we might have needed unions at one time to address problems like child labor and 80-hour work weeks -- but not in the modern "information" age.

It is of course true that organized labor not only massively increased salaries for ordinary employees through collective bargaining. Unions also organized for -- and won -- the minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, the weekend, paid sick days, vacation pay, and an end to child labor. In other words, labor unions brought America the middle class.

Now the middle class is in jeopardy, precisely because of the Wall Street's war on collective bargaining.

In fact, given the skyrocketing inequality in the distribution of the fruits of an increasingly productive economy, it should to be clear to anyone who is mildly conscious that we need labor unions and collective bargaining now more than ever.

America is richer now than at any time in its history. It is the wealthiest society in the history of humanity. But the wages of most ordinary people have not increased for 30 years. Time to wake up and smell the coffee -- and do something about it.

America needs a massive new social movement to demand that every worker in every job have the right to organize collectively. Every worker should have the right to be in a union in exactly the same way that every American has the right to vote. That is the only way to empower ordinary people to effectively demand their fair share of the fruits of our economy.

The right to freedom of association - and to collectively bargain wages and working conditions -- is a foundational principle of every democratic society on earth. That right is rooted in the United States' Bill of Rights, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations, Conventions 87 and 98 of the International Labour Organization, and Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

It's time for us to make the right to join a union and bargain collectively the keystone of the progressive agenda.

After all, collective bargaining is the fundamental cure to the growing inequality that threatens to destroy the middle class and eats away at the very foundation of our democratic society.

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Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com. He is a partner in Democracy Partners and a Senior Strategist for Americans United for Change. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.